August Love Stories: Part II: Borneo and matters of the heart

[for Part I click here]

We were talking about love. A year ago this month I was on a journey back to Cabang Panti Research Station, in Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan – Indonesian Borneo – a place where I worked for two years at as a recent college graduate at the turn of the millennium. (That phrase!!) 2015 was the 30th anniversary of the Research Station, originally established by Harvard’s Dr. Mark Leighton to study lowland rainforest ecology, and this obscure event had brought folks from all over the world. People who still, so many years later, hold this place above all others in their hearts and memories. A forest of soaring old growth trees and root-tangled swamps, streams so clean we filled our water bottles as we crossed the rocks, hornbills swooshing overhead and orangutans moving through the canopy, glowing saffron back-lit by sunlight….

I’ve often referred to Cabang Panti as “the most beautiful place on earth”. In fact, I’ve used that phrase enough over the years that it had become facile, falling off my tongue much like the story of my being attacked by a Malaysian sunbear while taking data on orangutan behavior three weeks into being there. I can recite the words without reliving the full force of the terror I felt, lying on the forest floor playing tug-of-war with my leg as the rope, a wild animal’s canines dug into the muscle of my shin. 15 years down the line, it just makes for a great scar and a fun anecdote most of the time. And it’s equally easy to use superlatives like “the most beautiful” without feeling the weight of your heart in your chest.


this was the view while you washed dishes, for gods sake.

It took going back, being there, to truly remember the fierce Love I felt for and in that place.  And the luminous intensity which that love gave to events during those two years, an intensity I still felt as bodily memory 15 years later. Andrea: 24 years young and hired to follow wild orangutans around, learning a new language, living in a Muslim country, encountering environmental pillage and blatant corruption for the first time…

Sitting for hours over sugary coffee and clove cigarettes exchanging stories and laughs with local village field assistants…or making plans for where to hide the gear if we needed to evacuate quickly when the loggers showed up….

buzzing chainsaws announcing the march of illegal logging ever deeper into paradise, while ineffectual bureaucrats stood by….

An arson attack on the community forestry project downriver, orchestrated by local timber barons and carried out by machete-wielding village goons….

hiking over miles and hours of greased logging skids while groups of local men, barefoot, smoking, crass, hauled planks sawed from those breathtaking trees….

Us researchers convincing the park service to resort to tree-spiking to save the biggest giants…

the millennium turning over with a Y2K whimper celebrated around a jungle bonfire, the Bush-Gore election results half-heard through shortwave radio static (‘something about a chad…?’), watching our world as-it-was undone through a Jakarta TV screen on 9/11 …

and of course the perhaps inevitable jungle romance, in cabins along the banks of the Air Putih, gibbons singing loopily as they cross overhead among 50-meter trees blocking out the sky.


Fun things happened here, we’ll just leave it at that

I was young, straight out of Ivy League America where they teach you that you CAN save the world – or perhaps the emphasis is on the YOU? Either way, that wasn’t the reality in Borneo in 2002. (I mean, serious meetings about a tree spiking strategy with USAID and the Indonesian park service??) I perhaps didn’t fully want to understand how complex the world is, and certainly didn’t have the emotional tools for coming to grips with loss on that scale.

I worked there for two years, and I left in large part because I didn’t know how to cope with the rage and frustration I felt at seeing the most beautiful place on earth being “destroyed”, as it felt then. I found myself thinking ugly thoughts about local people, about Indonesia, about the inevitable trajectories of consumption and growth and ruin. As I wrote in a brief piece published back in 2007 in Orion Magazine, “I left Gunung Palung to avoid heartbreak, to find a horizonless vista of green where I wasn’t prodded by failure or seduced by cynicism.” (PDF of the article: AJ Orion March-April 2007)

But I’ve since gone back. I went back in 2005, and again in 2015, and each time the forest has reclaimed more of what was taken from it. Last year during the reunion, I could barely believe I was walking the same trail I’d last hiked in 2001, when it was basically a scorched earth logger’s highway with a few haggard trees teetering on the fringes of post-apocalyptic clearings. Now it’s fully forest again: no, not the same crazy-huge Dipterocarp rocket-ships that inspire awe and devotion (and make real good habitat for hiding sunbears), probably not quite as diverse…but there, and growing fast.

And it’s there because people loved it enough to fight for it. Last August I was sobbing by the time I reached the research camp – a camp which had been abandoned in 2003 when loggers invaded, and has now been beautifully rebuilt by Drs. Cheryl Knott and Andy Marshall. Cheryl’s team is even still following an orangutan we got to know back in 2000 when she was attached to mom Marissa’s breast and named Martin. (15 years later, Martin’s gone through a gender transformation – ie the team got better binoculars – and become Walima. Check out Tim Laman’s amazing photos of her and other orangutans here…also don’t miss our hot friend and Natty Geo Young Explorer Robert Rodriguez Suro’s images as he chases orangutans this year ….)

Cheryl and Andy. Primate researchers who stayed. I didn’t stay. I sometimes think I should have. But I went and worked in Peru (which felt like horizonless green, at the time) and then became an activist against illegal logging. And the group I worked for, EIA, won some big battles and did some really cool campaigning, some of which has maybe made a difference for the forests of Indonesia. I found my way back to GP, in a sense, through the policy fight in far-off DC.

And meanwhile, other people – Indonesians and foreigners, people whose hearts had also been widened and deepened by Gunung Palung – stuck it out on the ground. They started organizations and conducted important research and brought public attention and pressured for policy change and responsible corporate practices; they have worked like hell at every level to keep that park (and others) from being destroyed, whether by illegal logging or industrial oil palm or vast swaths of fire.   They’re still doing it. It was inspiring to hear about it at the GP30 conference and then to see things first hand.

[I wanted to write much more about this reunion trip, but time and emotional baggage intervened. Here’s some photos for people who also knew and love it but couldn’t attend, and the blog continues below. Two of the pix here are (c) Dan Gavin, thanks Dan! ]


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KETAPANG and SUKADANA! What an oil palm, mining, timber and birds nest boom will do:

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So, so achingly much forest has been lost in Indonesia since 2000, it is heartbreaking…but there’s also still so much left to fight for.  Orangutans can and do live in degraded forest. Forest peoples still sustain livelihoods amongst the rapacious encroachment.  We must resist the cataclysmic narrative that all is lost, the “happy-never-after story [that leaves] no space for the tenuous victories and everyday drudgework of communities, governments, academics and organizations working for long-term conservation…the messy and ambiguous versions of reality that we need to hear and repeat to sustain our hope.” (Quoting myself again from Orion.)

What Gunung Palung taught me: we can’t only care about the vast, horizonless green. Back in 2005, Dr. Campbell Webb, another person who began his career at Cabang Panti and has dedicated much of his life to Indonesian conservation, wrote an important piece in Conservation Biology echoing this vision. The patches, the secondary forest, even the degraded abandoned ranchlands, they must be part of the narrative. He wrote: “let us treasure them, rather than seeing them as the dregs”.


Cam Webb in regenerating logged-out forest on the hike into the station

And so I believe that real conservation is about love stories. We fight to protect and restore the places that give our hearts their contours. We sink into fear and negativity without that connection to keep us inspired. I fled from Borneo in a slow-moving panic about losing GP; I came back out of love, even though I was scared to see what I’d find. Here in Costa Rica, I have days where I read too much internet news about climate disasters and scary technologies and want nothing other than to curl up on my couch drinking merlot while the End Times arrive. Super productive activism, I know. What gets me out of that space? The finca.

Naomi Klein, in her horrifying but utterly inspiring call to action This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, writes of “the power of this ferocious love”. She quotes an activist in Montana:

“That connection to this place and the love that people have for it, that’s what Arch Coal doesn’t get. They underestimate that. They don’t understand it so they disregard it. And that’s what in the end will save that place. It’s not the hatred of the coal companies, or anger, but love will save that place.”

And also: isn’t it utterly two-way? Ferocious love is necessarily transformative; the “saving” is mutual. You restore yourself as you go about the work of restoring a place you love.


I took this trip just after finishing my yoga teacher training and it felt so right to practice in this forest. Nowhere could be more alive with interconnections or more healing. Here grounding down into a massive naturally fallen tree.

Jonathan Franzen wrote one of my all-time favorite essays on this subject, called “Liking is for Cowards. Go for what hurts.” (published in the NYTimes in 2011 and you should go read the original, with its brilliant gentle knock-down of consumer techno-culture…)

It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

[…]And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

(I’ll just note that Jonathan Franzen visited the Osa Peninsula in 2011 and saw endemic yellow-billed cotingas here, shortly before he must have written this op-ed. And that I’ll always regret talking to him about shrimp instead of love when I had the chance….)

One big thing about Love that I didn’t really get at age 24 was the value of sticking around. When I think about why I feel somewhat hopeful about Gunung Palung – even in its sea of oil palm – it’s because of organizations and initiatives and agencies staffed by people who I met 16 years ago. And whether it’s for a place or an issue, that’s actually the only way you create durable change. You build something over time, and get as many people around you as possible to be part of it.  You try to believe in your vision of the future and you start planting the trees.


My gratitude and love to the people behind two organizations that are duking it out daily for Gunung Palung’s forests and local communities. They deserve all the support they can get:

Yayasan Palung/Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program

Health in Harmony/ASRI

Sadly, in the months after the reunion, we lost two beautiful souls who had been part of the Cabang Panti community. Rest in peace, Pak Udin and Pak Entoi.


Pak Udin from Semanjak worked with researchers and Yayasan Palung for many years and was a lively and kind soul. (He helped canoe me up and down the river to get medical attention after my bear attack. He also taught me the wonders of cooking with MSG.)

Bapak dan Ibu

Pak Entoi hosted so many of us in his home in Rantau Panjang over the years. He and Ibu still speak fondly of all the researchers who passed through their porch and their lives.


2 thoughts on “August Love Stories: Part II: Borneo and matters of the heart

  1. Pingback: August love stories: Part I: Osa: Falling for the finca | learningmyosabirds

  2. Pingback: Mamon chino season! And a grafting lesson with my favorite fruit | learningmyosabirds

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